Before becoming the director of education at Gannon University, Janice Whiteman was a principal in the Erie Public School District. Each day she would stand in the hallway as students walked in to start their school day.
“One day, there was a young man, a seventh grader, always very neat with his dark black hair slicked back,” Whiteman said. “But I see him that day, and he didn’t look his usual polished self. I made a mental note of that. Then the next day, I was in the middle school hallway, and he looked worse than the day before. This continued, so I said to him, ‘Why aren’t you taking care of yourself? At first, he wouldn’t say anything.”
The young man then confessed his mother had a new boyfriend, and while the boyfriend was around, the student was not allowed in the house. For the previous five days, the boy slept in a car outside, and as a result, he was not able to take care of himself.
Whiteman was able to notice the stress indicators, and the school was able to place the boy in a better housing situation. Although not a recent story, “The point is that that still happens today,” Whiteman said.
Frequently a teacher is the first person who will notice the symptoms of stress in their students and be able to help them.
During her time in the Erie area, Whiteman said she learned there is certainly a high percentage of low socio-economic classes that affect the students’ ability to learn.
Furthering her point, Whiteman described how some of the children rely on the school lunches for their only food of the day. A significant number of dysfunctional households exist as well as a large number of transient students who do not know how long they will even be in that school.
Whether they have arguments at home, have to flee their homes in the middle of the night due to piling debt or are lacking a parental figure altogether, a high number of stressors impact these children.
Even with older students, the push to continue that success is very demanding.
Students of all backgrounds experience different stressors. Whiteman said there are problems across the board like bullying and pressure to fit in, but each age group varies as well.
Elementary school students often have trouble with family life, external factors and learning how to develop coping skills for things like ADHD and dyslexia as they begin their academic careers.
In middle school, a lot of emphasis is put on fitting in, especially in the age of social media. High schoolers worry about getting good grades and doing well on sports teams to get into college or get a job upon graduation. Plus, the high school age group comes with the problems of romantic relationships.
Whiteman shared the teaching outline Gannon uses to instruct its education majors about healthy developmental aspects.
These include multiple topics in both external and internal assets, such as support, empowerment, constructive use of time, positive identity and more.
“I call it putting on your armor,” Whiteman said. “So that things bounce off.”
The program acknowledges the problem then works toward a gradual solution.
These assets include three age groups — 5 years old to 8 years old, 8 years old to 12 years old and 12 years old to 18 years old.
For example, in the social competencies category, the lowest level explains peaceful conflict skills (learning to resolve conflict without kicking and screaming), in addition to interpersonal competence, which guides the students to make positive friendships.
The middle level skills include resistance skills that teach how children can stay away from things that could get them in trouble and how to calm down when they become frustrated.
The eldest age group focuses on the competency categories of knowing how to plan and make wise decisions, resolve conflict nonviolently and develop empathy and sensitivity skills.
If these steps are not working as planned, it can be time for a teacher to get involved.
Marissa Siebka, a Gannon student and second-grade student teacher at Perry Elementary School, said her students often exhibit stress by not doing their work, lashing out and secluding themselves. Siebka also emphasized that treating stress can be different for each student, but the first step is always talking to the student.
“I ask them what is going on,” Siebka said. “Mostly that you want to show your students, no matter what age, that you care about them. They have to know that you care about your students before the actual curriculum. If they don’t know they’re loved and safe, they can’t get their work done.”
It is not about seeing improvement the next day. Even if there is an improvement from the beginning of the year, that is an achievement. Siebka said a problem she sees regularly is that people want to learn something right away and see results, but it does not work that way. The same goes for learning coping skills.
The question looms of how to speak with a child exhibiting anxiety.
“We know stress and depression can lead to suicide,” Whiteman said, “so we need to get that more into our curriculum.”
Gannon offers one course that discusses teaching strategies in the classroom, but not every education student is required to take the class. The students who do, learn how to help students in need of stress relief.
For example, a child with hyperactivity might use an exercise ball as a seat in a classroom.
Another example is if students are feeling overwhelmed, they can take a break and go outside to recompose. If students need to feel more comfortable in their surroundings, they may be able to keep a Hot Wheels car or something meaningful to them where they can play with but cannot take it out and draw attention to it.
That way, the students can play with the toy in their pocket and not be as fidgety in class. Also, nobody has to know about it.
Patti Palotas, a clinical therapist for Collegiate Academy, works on a team that helps students in the district struggling with stress.
“Obviously, the first thing is to just listen to the student and allow them to tell their story without judgment,” Palotas said.
Based on that, Palotas is able to give them coping skills, but a lot of the time, students get so overwhelmed that just talking about it helps them.
Alli Lee, a Gannon student and an elementary school student teacher in the Erie School District, expressed her concern for anxious students.
“Students seem more anxious today,” Lee said. “We weren’t all made to fit in, and each child has something unique to bring to the classroom. Make sure they know you will listen to them. Sometimes that’s all they need.”
Lee also said communication is an essential component to getting students the help they need, and it is the teacher’s responsibility to take that step.
“I think it is important for teachers to step in and communicate with parents and share concerns with the guidance counselor and principal,” Lee said. “As a teacher, I am my students’ advocate and want only the best for them. I develop strong relationships with students, so they feel comfortable, safe and supported.”
Palotas said that sometimes students feel as though their problems are unsolvable, but they might need help breaking them down into smaller problems that are easier to tackle.
Some of the techniques Palotas’ team advocates for are exercise, talking with a friend when stressed, deep breathing, identifying your feelings and journaling, meditation and more. Guided imagery is an example of this technique, where pupils will imagine themselves in a “happy” or “safe” place to help redirect their attention from the stressful situation.
More recently, middle and high school level school counseling is more career-oriented. Being so heavily invested in future career development may deter students from going there to get help, Whiteman said. Students may even associate counseling with more stress about college or finding a job.
Palotas said more mental health specialists are being placed in schools in addition to counselors to combat this problem.
“A lot of it (counseling) is education, mentoring them and teaching them social and emotional skills,” Palotas said. “Teachers are the front line of that.”
She said across the board, the goal is always to get the parents involved because the school can only do so much when the child goes home to a bad environment.
“Schools can always do more, but we are not the solution,” Whiteman said. “We must fully develop a three-pronged approach among home, school and society.”